Israel is putting a new spin on trips to the Holy Land, with a major investment in bicycle tourism.
Capitalizing on the country's small size and an increasing interest in active travel, the Israeli government decided in 2008 to invest $30 million into its cycling infrastructure, including the development of more than 3,100 miles of bicycle paths primarily in its Galilee and Negev regions and the Judean Hills outside Jerusalem; urban bike-share programs throughout the country; and public trains and buses that accommodate bicycles.
The new trails will be completed over the next five years, but tour operators and travel sellers are already seizing on increased interest from travelers wanting to experience the country's beaches, desert, ancient ruins and holy sites on two wheels while enjoying Israel's Mediterranean climate.
"The potential for cycling tourism to Israel is great and has steadily increased over the past several years," said Haim Gutin, Israel's commissioner for tourism, North and South America. "[It] has contributed to last year's all-time high in tourism to Israel with the arrival of 3.54 million travelers."
Gutin said that already this year, the number of tourists taking advantage of Tel Aviv's new bike-share program and guided cycling expeditions is on the rise, a trend noted by travel sellers and tour companies, as well.
Iris Hami, executive vice president of Philadelphia-based Gil Travel (www.giltravel.com), said that Gil this year added a scheduled six-day bicycle tour of Northern Israel as demand grew.
"All these active tours are becoming much more popular, especially in the younger segment," Hami said. "We used to do it ad hoc, and then we saw we had more demand, so we began to offer this [cycling] tour."
Hami said cycling is part of an overall trend toward interest in active vacations, particularly among clientele in their 30s and 40s but also with families. Gil recently introduced a Family Adventure Tour that includes a day of biking around Tel Aviv along with rapelling and hiking.
She said Israel's plethora of bike trails and its size — the country stretches about 260 miles north to south and 85 miles from east to west at its widest point — help make it attractive for cyclists.
"Israel has a lot of biking trails, so it's user-friendly," she said. "It's a small country, so you can cover a lot more ground with a bike in Israel than in some other places."
Amir Rockman, cycling specialist for Gordon Active, a Tel Aviv-based Israel bike tour operator, said that interest in its bike tours has been growing among its mostly American clientele. In the last year, business grew more than 50%, and its daily bike tour business has more than doubled.
Gordon offers guided urban bike tours of Tel Aviv and Jerusalem as well as multiday tours around the country. Rockman said its most popular offering is its one-day Jerusalem tour followed by its day tour of Tel Aviv. Among multiday trips, its 260-mile Jerusalem-to-Eilat route is its most popular tour, followed by the Trans Galilee ride from Tel Aviv to the Galilee and Golan Heights.
Rockman said its daily tours are designed to be "family-oriented" and that riders can even be of below-average physical fitness. On multiday rides, participants cycle three to five hours per day.
Last year, Gordon introduced self-guided cycling programs, enabling participants to go on unguided, custom-crafted routes with the help of a GPS. Gordon handles all logistics, including hotel bookings, transferring luggage between stops and supplying participants with the GPS and a mobile phone.
"And then you're on your own," Rockman said.
Rockman said Gordon is the only company currently offering such tours in Israel, and that it's become its fastest-growing segment. The self-guided tour is about half the price of a standard guided tour.
"You're not with a group or guide, so it's more flexible," he said. "Cyclists don't like to be on anyone else's schedule."
Rockman noted that the infrastructure improvements have made such tours more viable, with improvements such as being able to take bikes on trains and buses helping cyclists to move around the country more comfortably.
For visitors who want to incorporate a day or two of cycling into their Israel trip, day trips of Jerusalem and Tel Aviv cover the highlights of the city. Rockman said Jerusalem is better seen by bike than on tour buses.
"The advantage of the ride is it's full of shortcuts," he said. "I can take you on a bike without going on any busy streets at all. You can go slow, and there's always something interesting to see and talk about."
Tel Aviv's new Tel-o-Fun bike-share program enables visitors to do self-guided cycling tours of the city, using more than 100 pickup points across Tel Aviv. The city's compact size enables visitors to easily explore it by bicycle in one day; for example, one can cycle along the Mediterranean Sea bike path from the northern end of Tel Aviv to its southern Jaffa port in only 15 minutes. In a car or bus, that would normally be impossible due to Tel Aviv's increasing traffic levels.
Gordon and other companies also create tailored bike tours of Israel and can focus specifically on religious sites, archaeological sites or perhaps wine-tasting.
Visit www.gordonactive.com and www.www.goisrael.com.
Follow Johanna Jainchill on Twitter @jjainchilltw.